Beware the Machine

Feeding the Healthy Food Marketing Machine

Everyone wants to eat healthy. The healthy food marketing machine is ready and able to sell it to you. And so, FDA is gearing up the tools to help. At the recent National Food Policy Conference in Washington, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb offered a snapshot of agency priorities on health claims for food.

Healthy and Natural

Gottlieb told the conference that “healthy” is a claim that’s ripe for change. The agency is in the middle of updating the criteria for making this claim. And he’s also looking at ways to make that claim stand out:

So, we’ll also consider how to depict “healthy” on the package so that consumers can easily find it, particularly when they may not have the time or the skills to examine all the information on a food package.

To address this, we’ve had discussions about whether there should be a standard icon or symbol for the word “healthy” that everyone could use on food packages.

In a similar vein, the agency is standardizing the definition for claiming that food is “natural.” This will be a food marketer’s dream. Look for a flood of healthy and natural products screaming for you to eat all you can.

Step Right Up for a Healthy and Natural Feast

So what’s wrong with that, you might ask yourself. Maybe nothing. Or maybe this is simply an extension of the trendline we’ve been following for a long, long time. And in particular, the food industry loves it.

Experts define the dimensions of an ideal, healthy food. Regulators promote that ideal. Think low fat in the 1980s. Industry steps up and produces it in many forms, in massive quantities, places it everywhere you turn at a good price, and promotes it in more ways you can count. Voilà! The four p’s of marketing stand ready to bring you a healthy and natural feast.

However, consider the possibility that this process lies at the heart of relentless trends toward ever more obesity. Kevin Hall recently pointed out that the problem with our food environment goes much deeper than simple definitions of healthy nutrient profiles. More people are eating and snacking in more places. Food cues surround us everywhere we turn.

Thus, the healthy food marketing machine surrounds us with an abundant feast of healthy stuff. But we might not benefit from stronger cues – courtesy of FDA – to eat ever more healthy stuff. Perhaps what we really need is a radical change in the business model for food marketing.

Click here for Gottlieb’s full speech, here for perspective from FoodNavigator USA, and here for words of caution from a dietitian’s perspective. And then here, you can find the source for the infographic with a take on the history of healthy eating.

Beware the Machine, photograph © Bill Dickinson / flickr

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April 29, 2018